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Painting with bacteria: connecting art and science

Agar Art Contest Winners
Photo by Kevin Johnson

Students from all across campus had the opportunity to combine their creativity skills with their curiosity for science by painting Agar plates using harmless E. coli bacteria at the semiannual Agar Art Contest sponsored by the College of Life Sciences Department of Microbiology and Molecular Biology (MMBIO).

Lab administrator Robert Black carefully constructs the perfect bacterial “paint palette” with the help of his students. In preparation, the MMBIO lab team produces seven different types of bacteria by inserting certain genes, including antibiotic resistance genes, to cultivate the right colors. The genetically-modified bacteria appear clear at first against the spongy surface of the agar, a jelly-like substance found in algae. The petri dishes are treated with antibiotics allowing only the prepared bacteria to grow.

After students paint the bacteria on the nutrient-rich canvas, MMBIO staff place the tiny masterpieces into a body-temperature incubator. Only bacteria with the genetically-modified gene for antibiotic resistance survive, ensuring that any harmful environmental bacteria will not grow. Overnight, the bacteria feed on the stiff agar base of the petri dish, bringing to life the vibrant colors of the genetically-altered organisms.

“You can only see the lines from where the paintbrush touches the agar. Other than that, you really don’t know how it’s going to turn out,” Black explains. However, “almost everybody walks out of there with a good sense of accomplishment.”

Pre-illustration major and first place winner of the competition Sydney Scherbel (‘24) participated with her fiancé, who is studying medical laboratory science. “He does agar art bacteria stuff all the time...and I doodle all the time,” Sydney said. “It was a really good representational date where we both found something we like to do together.”

Lindy Mangrum (‘25), a freshman studying art and the second-place winner, was fascinated to see her painting grow into a colorful rendition of the First Vision. “I was so excited about this because I love finding different processes you can use to make art,” she says. “It brought a new artistic meaning to the scientific term ‘cultured bacteria.’”

After the bacteria has grown, the MMBIO staff photographs each design and shares them on social media. This year, over 200 plates were made and shared by BYU students. The staff chose three winners based on effort, skill, and entertainment value.

MMBIO academic advisor Kevin Johnson loves showing off how exciting microbiology and molecular biology can be to students. He says that participating in Agar art is a great chance for students from different majors to experience science without having to go through all the training it takes to be in a lab. As for the MMBIO students, Johnson says, “They are interested in seeing what they can create being hands-on rather than just being in a lecture.”

BYU’s mission encourages interdisciplinary learning across different majors and departments. Black recognizes the value of engaging both art students and MMBIO students through this unique experience. “It’s been fascinating because now we have all these art majors coming and creating amazing designs with bacteria. They probably never even thought that was a thing,” Black says.

Students are becoming more and more interested in this event. “MMBIO is exciting and hopefully people are enjoying it and will want to join our department,” says Johnson. “We’ve created something that we’ve never known before...It draws you in. It’s intriguing," Black agrees. “People realize that they can do more than they ever thought they could.”

Winning Entries:

1st Place: Sydney Scherbel - Spooky Scene
2nd Place: Lindy Mangrum - First Vision
3rd Place: Trenton Gibson - Baby Yoda